Autism In The Classroom

5 Tools to Help Students Focus

How can I help my student focus and learn? It’s a big concern for many teachers. Many special students have the potential to learn if they could only pay attention. While medication can be very helpful for many it is often not enough or not an option for all students. Here are five tools to help:

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1. Use a Weighted Vest

A recent small study showed children with ADHD showed significant increases in on-task behavior while wearing a weighted vest. VandenBerg, N.L. (2001) The use of a weighted vest to increase on-task behavior in children with attention difficulties. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 55(6), 621-628. Another study conducted by the Challenge Infant Developmental Center of Brooklyn, New York found that children with autism who used a weighted vest increased their attention to task and had less self-stimulatory behaviors. Fertel-Daly, D., Bedell, G., & Hinojosa, J. (2001). Effects of a weighted vest on attention to task and self-stimulatory behaviors in preschoolers with pervasive developmental disorders. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 55(6), 629-640.

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2. Use a Wiggle Seat
Setting a small air filled cushion or “wiggle seat” on a student’s chair allows them to wiggle without distracting their classmates. A couple of studies have found both kids with ADHD and those with autism increased their ability to pay attention and stay on task in the classroom using these. Schilling & Swartz, (2004) Alternative seating for young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: effects on classroom behavior.; The Journal of autism and developmental disorders: 423-32. As a group, students with IEPs and those considered At-Risk improved in accuracy, fluency, and comprehension while seated on an air-filled cushion. The teacher and the students felt the cushion was not disruptive and easily fit into the classroom routine.

3. Use a Visual Timer
Using visual timers can help students increase their understanding of the passage of time, increase time awareness, and help with focus and attention. A better understanding of the passage of time can also relieve a student’s stress and anxiety freeing them up mentally to focus.

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4. Give Students a Fidget to Hold
In the book Fidget to Focus authors Rotz, & Wright, 2005 found that giving students small fidgets also increased classroom attention to task. Good fidgets feel interesting, provide lots of finger movement and are quiet.

5. For Restless Legs Use an Exercise Band
Place an Exercise Band around the bottom of two front chair legs to help your student focus. Students can sit, kick against the band under their desk and fidget with their feet without disturbing the class.
We hope these tools are helpful to you. Have another tool you use to help your students focus? Please share it with us!

Chewelry – Product of the Week

We have been offering Chewelry for several years now.  This durable chewable necklace or bracelet comes in deep jewel tone colors.  It is designed to help kids keep from chewing on their shirts or gnawing off their sleeves!  Teachers and therapists recommend them for both school and home.

We hear reports from therapists and parents that Chewelry has not only saved many shirts, but has also helped fidgety kids focus while doing homework, completing new tasks, sitting in class or during car rides.  We also offer a”Mega” chewelry version of this product that is double the strength and thickness!

The coil design of the necklace and bracelet is surprisingly durable and provides lots of oral motor input.  However, many sensory sensitive kids report they don’t like the feel of the necklace on their neck. They feel it pulls their hair.  So if your child is sensitive to touch this probably isn’t the chew necklace of choice.

Use Chewelry to:

  • Redirect nervous chewing
  • Provide oral sensory input
  • Keep kids from grinding their teeth
  • Keep kids from chewing on things they shouldn’t
  • Help with concentration

Managing Overstimulation and Stress in Children with Autism

Children with autism can frequently become overwhelmed or over stimulated by situations beyond their control.  As caregivers, teachers and therapists we may not always know the cause of their discomfort so its important to have a toolbox of calming strategies to help kids calm down, refocus and get back on task.  Furthermore, you can prepare for a potentially stressful event by allowing a child to choose a calming activity and use it before the event and to calm down afterwards.  Below is a list of common calming techniques you can use with the autistic children you support.

Remember the rule of one.

Use the rule of one when a child is deeply stressed, anxious or in the middle of a meltdown.  Have only one person talk to the child with autism and ask them to do only one thing.  Unfortunately most school models of crises call for bringing in lots of people, lots of people that start talking at once.  Rather than calming a situation down this can escalate it.  Remember to just have one person, ideally the person who has genuine affection for the child ask the child to do only one thing.  This should be simple some examples could be sit in a chair, go to your calm place or take some deep breaths.

Deep Breathing

When a child becomes stressed or overwhelmed their heat rate increases and their breathing becomes fast and shallow.  This creates high blood pressure.  You can help a child stop this cycle by simply learning to take deep breaths.  Deep breathing is a simple stress management tool that a child can use anywhere to calm and re-center themselves.  Its important to teach and practice this technique often before stressful situations arise.

Isometric Exercise

Stop for a moment and squeeze your hands together then open them.  As you let go of the tension in your muscles you should notice your muscles are more relaxed than before you started.  Here are some simple isometric exercises:

  • Making a fist and squeezing
  • Pushing hands together
  • Pushing knees together
  • Shrug your shoulders
  • Pushing against a wall
  • Pulling against a rope tied around a pole in the playground

For a child who is having difficulty understanding the concept of isometric exercise give them a stress ball to squeeze.  You can place the stress ball between their hands, knees, elbows or shoulder and neck to help them learn this relaxation technique.

Deep Pressure

Like isometric exercises, deep pressure also helps the muscles in the body to let go of tension.  Here are a few common ways you can provide deep pressure to children with autism:

Weighted Puppy Wrap

  • Weighted Items: blankets, vests or lap pads
  • Bear hugs – preferably initiated by child
  • Allow the child to wrap themselves up tightly in a blanket or sheet
  • Play Doh, or Living Sand – include tools to increase muscle resistance so kids really use the muscles in their hands and fingers.


  • Have child rub lotion on their arms and legs.  Be cautious about smells, it may seem like a good idea to use “calming” lavender lotion but this may not be socially appropriate for boys.  Some children are also very sensitive to smells.
  • We have found a soft vibrating massage pillow allows a child to provide themselves with calming vibration.  Pressure activated pillows also encourage  some isometric exercise.
  •  Provide a small hand held massager the child can control.

Provide a Box of Tactile Items

Some children find very calming a box of interesting things to touch.  This can include soft swatches of fabric, soft squishy toys, or small stuffed animals.

Create a Calming Area

Snug Rug

Provide a calming place with fidget toys, pillows, bean bag and a soft blanket.  This can be as simple as a corner in a room or even a small area rug with calming items behind a teacher’s desk.  Make sure to practice going there so the child will identify it as a safe place.


Often stress happens when someone new is working with a child with autism.  Remember to communicate across team members and especially with new members.  This can be as simple as creating a short “cheat sheet.”  Along with therapy goals make a list of behaviors to watch for that indicates stress, successful calming techniques and contact information for the team leader or primary care giver in case a quick consultation is needed.

Developing Independence Skills in People with Autism

By: Bonnie Arnwine

Recently at an ABAI conference I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Bridget Taylor talk about helping people on the autism spectrum become independent.  Often it’s easier for a parent, teacher or

therapist to do something for a person on the autism spectrum rather than teaching them to do things for themselves.  If we don’t take the extra time to teach skills we will  have people who

are not independent.  No one wants to see a forty year old person who can’t prepare his own meal!

With this in mind you may want to ask yourself:

  • Do you still open containers?
  • Unpack backpacks?
  • Cut food?
  • Help with toileting?
  • Open doors?
  • Brush teeth?
  • Do they sleep in their own bed?
  • Do they shower independently?

Learning self help skills  increases self esteem – and can give individuals a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.  Increased independence leads to increased vocational, social, residential, and community opportunities.  It is never is too early to evaluate what you are teaching.  Are you teaching the skills someone needs to live independently at the age of 50?   If a person can add numbers but can’t balance a checkbook or figure out how to buy lunch how helpful is the skill?

  • Think about it this way – can the people you are working with point to 50 pictures but can’t get a spoon from the kitchen?
  • Can they add and subtract but not zipper a coat?

To help you identify skills you may need to teach.  Take a piece of paper and for one day write down everything you do for an individual.  From this create a list of skills you need to teach.  Remember slow and steady wins the race.  Start with a few skills first the one’s you feel are most essential.  If you are not sure how to teach a skill ask a Behaviorist or an Occupational Therapist. 

A  journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Lao-tzu

4th of July Fireworks Social Story

We love social stories.  Feel free to use the following simple social story to prepare your special students or child with autism for the 4th of July fireworks show.

Every year we celebrate my country’s birthday on the 4th of July.  We celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks.  Fireworks are a fun way to celebrate.

Sometimes fireworks make loud noises and have bright lights.

If the fireworks get too loud I can cover my ears with my hands or put on my ear muffs.

If I don’t want to look at the bright fireworks, I can close my eyes or look away.

I can watch the fireworks up in the sky or I can watch fireworks on the ground.   If the fireworks are on the ground I will not touch them.  I will let an adult light the fireworks so that I will be safe.

If I am scared, I will hug my mom or dad.  Hugging my mom or dad might help me feel safer.

After the fireworks end, I will clap.  I will be happy that I got to see the fireworks.

Kids Chewing on their Clothes, Hair or Pencils

Why do some kids feel the need to chew on their clothes, hair or fingers?  This is a common issue that parents and teachers have seen in students with autism, ADHD and sensory issues.  There can be several reasons why a kid is chewing.  If you are a concerned parent make sure to talk to your child’s doctor to rule out any possible medical issue.

Here are the most common reasons:

  • Chewing can be calming.  Think about it when you eat you tend to relax.  The act of chewing can be a way for kids to calm themselves.
  • Chewing can also help children focus.   Students may be chewing on their clothes at school as a way to help them stay focused and pay attention.
  • Children may be chewing on their clothes or non-food items because they have a dental issue.  We have heard from many teachers and therapists that children start chewing when molars are coming in or they have a cavity.  This can be especially true of a child who is nonverbal and may not be able to communicate that they are having a problem inside their mouth.
  • Some therapists have suggested that there is a connection between children who do little physical activity and chewing. The theory is that everyone needs  to move and children who are inside a lot or have trouble with movement may chew as a way to release pent up energy.
  • Some children may chew on their clothes because they need to stimulate their jaw muscles. This is especially true of kids who eat a soft or pureed diet.
  • The child may be chewing because they have Pica.

Here are a few items we recommend for chewers:

Chewy Tubes – Super durable and have been used by therapists for years.

Chewelry Necklaces - Our most popular chewable jewelry an affordable favorite for teachers and therapists.

Chewy Pencil Toppers - these clear chewable pencil tops are not very noticeable in class.


How can I help my child improve handwriting?

By: Mary Ann Heinz, COTA/Ret

Sitting down to write is a fairly simple task.  Pick up a pencil or pen and write, right?  For the child with special needs writing may not be so simple.  Stop and think about the components of good writing skills.

  • Good sitting posture (upper body stability)
  • Shoulder stability (for control of the arm/hand)
  • Appropriate grasp pattern on the writing tool

Sounds easy, but when a child’s body  is not providing  good feedback about body position or movement this can be a daunting task.  Throw into the mix the need for:

  •  Good ocular motor control to visually track across the paper
  • Spatial relationships needed for line adherence, letter size and word spacing
  •  Good bilateral integration for development of lead assist hand patterns

….and the task becomes even more difficult, but not impossible.

 Here are a few tips that can make the writing experience a little friendlier:

  • Table and chair height should be appropriate for the child.  Feet should be stabilized on the floor and elbows resting comfortably on the table.
  • Paper should be slanted according to hand dominance.  For the right hand, slant to the right.  For the left hand, slant to the left.  This is important because it allows writing to flow smoothly across the paper and keeps the hand/wrist in the proper position for good distal control of the fingers and thumb.
  • The addition of a slant board can often be beneficial.  It places the paper in a better visual line for increased attention to task.
  • Use of a training tool for pencil grasp can also be helpful.  The HandiWriter is a soft cotton-band writing aid that facilitates the appropriate tripod grasp, while giving feedback for separation of the two sides of the hand.  This separation allows for greater distal control and comfort while writing.  A variety of pencil grippers are available that work well with the HandiWriter™.

Having worked in the special education department of a large school district for over 10 years I can attest to the effectiveness of these techniques.  I worked with a number of children with autism and found that, given the right tools and instruction, they were able to write with increased confidence and control.  I also found it important to work closely with the teacher for carryover in the classroom.

Each child is unique.  As parents, teachers and therapists, our goal is to provide opportunities that will help them realize their full potential.  If proper handwriting is the objective, then we have the techniques, training methods and tools to assist them in achieving their goal.

Mary Ann Heinz has worked as a COTA/L in pediatrics in both preschool and elementary school settings for twenty years. She developed the Handiwriter and co-founded  HandiThings, LLC.

Autism Classroom Setup Tips

Teaching autistic students can be challenging.  Students on the autism spectrum often have difficulty transitioning to new activities due to their lack of understanding and anxiety surrounding new situations.  They may also have attention and sensory needs that make it difficult for them to focus.  Setting up a classroom with visual cues and schedules can decrease anxiety, increase independence, smooth out transitions and minimize challenging behaviors.  Furthermore, paying attention to sensory needs and potential distractions will increase your effectiveness.

Successful Classrooms for Autistic Students:

Minimize Distractions
As you set up your classroom pay attention to where your autistic students will be seated.  Windows, the hallway or free time areas can cause lots of distractions.  Try to set your student in an area that gives them an unobstructed view of your teaching.  Look at your classroom walls.  If anything on your wall does not support your teaching take it down.  You don’t want your student focusing on a cute picture at the expense of valuable learning time!

Have a Calming Space
Stress, anxiety, and misunderstandings happen in the best classroom situations – so be prepared have a calming area for your autistic student.  This doesn’t have to be large, it can be as simple as a small corner behind a desk with a chair or beanbag, a weighted vest or lap pad, some noise cancelling headphones, and a few fidgets.  These items can be stored in a basket under or next to the chair.  Practice visiting the calm area before a meltdown happens, so when it hits your student knows where to go to refocus.

Use Visual Supports
Simple visual cues and using furniture as boundaries can lessen an autistic student’s anxiety and help them to focus.  Visual cues can include: a classroom schedule, visual timer, picture labels for classroom supplies, clear boundaries for different learning areas.

  • Use blue painters tape on the floors of your classroom to create line up areas, or boundaries between centers.
  • Use furniture as a boundary between your small group instruction area and and the art area.
  • As you think about where you will store materials, try to store them in the area they will be used in.  For example, keep the art supplies in the art section, pencils, rulers and graph paper in the math area.
  • Laminate the autistic student’s name and label to the different areas the student is expected to sit.
  • You can also laminate a large piece of construction paper to create a visual cue of the student’s work space.
  • Use visuals to mark areas that are off limits.  Simple stop signs can label cabinets and areas that are for teacher use only.

Accommodate Sensory Needs

Weighted Vest

Weighted Vest

Several studies have shown weighted vests help students focus and pay attention.  Weighted lap pads also work for students who have fidgety or restless legs.  Sitting discs or wedges also provide students with movement which can help them focus.

Pay attention to fluorescent lighting.  Some students are very sensitive to this form of unnatural lighting.  If this is the case try to sit your student near a window with lots of natural light or use classroom light filters.

Pay attention to noise.  If your student is sensitive to noise keep them away from noisy areas of the classroom like the doorway, pencil sharpener.  You may want to let them use noise reducing earphones for quiet study times or in anticipation of fire drills.

More Tips for your success:
Create a predictable schedule especially for the first five minutes of the day.  This will allow your autistic student to start the day successfully and ensure a smooth transition into learning.

Use it if it serves a purpose, if not get rid of it.  Set up your classroom area and furniture based on your students needs.  If you don’t need something let it go.  Clutter can be distracting.

For more tips to help you set up your classroom check out Setting Up Classroom Spaces That Support Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders.

For Tips & Behavior Strategies check out: A Treasure Chest of Behavioral Strategies.

Therapy Ball, Disc o Sit or Move n Sit – Which one should you use?

Burst Resistant Therapy Ball

There are now several studies that have shown students, including those with ADHD and other special needs, focus better in the classroom when they are allowed some movement.  One way kids can move while focusing is to sit on items like a therapy ball, Disc o Sit or Move N Sit wedge.  We are often asked by teachers and parents what is the difference and what would work best for our child.

All three of these types of items should help students to focus, because they operate in similar ways.  When a child sits on a therapy ball, wedge, or cushion they are sitting on a slightly unstable surface.  The slight instability of the surface causes the child to continuously make minor adjustments with their core muscles to stay balanced and seated on the object.  The core muscles of our bodies, the muscles that run up and down the front of our bodies and the mid and lower back help with stability and are rather large.  Thus the constant small movements of the core muscles allow the child to in a sense fidget without appearing to move.

Disc o Sit Jr.

Therapy Balls

Several studies have shown the effectiveness of therapy balls in increasing attention and focus with students.  You can read more about those studies here.  As we have talked to teachers here has been our feedback.  The positives first: a therapy ball provides more opportunities for movement with the leg muscles as well as the core muscles and has been helpful for very fidgety kids.  However, the downside is some kids have used the balls to gain attention by falling off the balls, rolling the balls and thus distracting the class.  If you do decide to use a therapy ball make sure it is an “anti-burst” ball as some cheaper therapy balls will in effect pop and almost immediately drop your student on the ground.  One can purchase ball chairs, but this is a more expensive option.

Disc O Sit

Sitting Discs

Both the Disc O Sit or Disc o Sit Jr.  have research behind them and have been used in classes to effectively help students focus.  These discs can be placed on a students chair so that they create the instability of a ball, but can’t roll away.  You will need to experiment with the amount of air you add to the cushion -  more air can create more instability, but the student may not like it.  These have a smooth side and a bumpy side with inch round knobs that provide slight sensory input.  Disc o Sits are highly sturdy and easy to inflate/deflate with a plug that you just pull out and blow into.  There are also lower cost versions of these.

Sitting Wedges

Move and Sit Jr

Move n Sit Wedge or Move n Sit Jr. also provide instability that causes the core muscles to move.  However, these items also have the added benefit of encouraging better posture.  For students with poor postural control, or those who tend to slouch this item will tilt their pelvis forward encouraging straighter spine alignment.  Like the Disc o Sit you can adjust the amount of air in the cushion by removing the plug and blowing into it.  This item also has a knobby side and a smooth side providing more or less sensory input.  There are also lower cost versions of sitting wedges as well.

It should also be noted that both the Move n Sit and Disc o Sit items are manufactured in Italy and do not contain any phthalates.

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